"Are they never going to turn up?"
"It's almost four now!"
"They'll be left till the six-thirty!"
"Oh, don't alarm yourself! The valley train always waits for theexpress."
"It's coming in now!"
"Oh, good, so it is!"
"Late by twenty minutes exactly!"
"Stand back there!" yelled a porter, setting down a box with a slam, andmotioning the excited, fluttering group of girls to a position ofgreater safety than the extreme edge of the platform. "LlangarmonJunction! Change for Glanafon and Graigwen!"
Snorting and puffing, as if in agitated apology for the tardiness of itsarrival, the train came steaming into the station, the drag of itsbrakes adding yet another item of noise to the prevailing babel.Intending passengers clutched bags and baskets; fathers of families gavea last eye to the luggage; mothers grasped children firmly by the hand;a distracted youth, seeking vainly for his portmanteau, upset a stack ofbicycles with a crash; while above all the din and turmoil rose thestrident, rasping voice of a book-stall boy, crying his selection ofpapers with ear-splitting zeal.
From the windows of the in-coming express waved seventeen agitatedpocket-handkerchiefs, and the signal was answered by a counter-displayof cambric from the twenty girls hustled back by an inspector in thedirection of the weighing-machine.
"And Ruth, surely!"
"Oh! where's Marjorie?"
"There! Can't you see her, with Doris?"
"That's Mamie, waving to me!"
"What's become of Kathleen?"
One moment more, and the neat school hats of the new-comers had swelledthe group of similar school hats already collected on the platform;ecstatic greetings were exchanged, urgent questions asked and hastyanswers given, and items of choice information poured forth with theutmost volubility of which the English tongue is capable. Urged by briefdirections from a mistress in charge, the chattering crew surged towardsa siding, and made for a particular corridor carriage marked "Reserved".Here handbags, umbrellas, wraps, and lunch-baskets were hastily stowedaway in the racks, and, Miss Moseley having assured herself that not asingle lamb of her flock was left behind, the grinning porter slammedthe doors, the green flag waved, and the local train, long overdue,started with a jerk for the Craigwen Valley.
Past the grey old castle that looked seawards over the estuary, past thelittle white town of Llangarmon, with its ancient walls and fortifiedgates, past the quay where the fishing smacks were lying idly at anchorand a pleasure-steamer was unloading its human cargo, past the longstretch of sandy common, where the white tents of the Territorialsevoked an outcry of interest, then up alongside the broad tidal rivertowards where the mountains, faint and misty, rose shouldering oneanother till they merged into the white nebulous region of thecloud-flecked sky. Those lucky ones who had secured window seats on theriver side of the carriage were loud in their acclamations ofsatisfaction as familiar objects in the landscape came into sight.
"There's Cwm Dinas. I wish they could float a big Union Jack on thesummit."
"It would be a landmark all right."
"Oh, the flag's up at Plas Cafn!"
"We'll have one at school this term?"
"Oh, I say! Move a scrap," pleaded Ulyth Stanton plaintively. "We onlyget fields and woods on our side. I can't see anything at all for yourheads. You might move. What selfish pigs you are! Well, I don't care;I'm going to talk."
"You have been talking already. You've never stopped, in fact," remarkedBeth Broadway, proffering a swiftly disappearing packet of pear dropswith a generosity born of the knowledge that all sweets would beconfiscated on arrival at The Woodlands.
"I know I have, but that was merely by the way. It wasn't anything veryparticular, and I've got something I want to tell you--somethingfearfully important. Absolutely super! D'you know, she's actually comingto school. Isn't it great? She's to be my room-mate. I'm just wild tosee her. I hope her ship won't be stopped by storms."
"By the Muses, whom are you talking about?"
"'She' means the cat," sniggered Gertrude Oliver.
"Why! can't you guess? What stupids you are! It's Rona, of course--RonaMitchell from New Zealand."
"It's a fact. It is indeed!"
The incredulity on the countenances of her companions having yielded toan expression of interest, Ulyth continued her information withincreased zest, and a conscious though would-be nonchalant air ofimportance.
"Her father wants her to go to school in England, so he decided to sendher to The Woodlands, so that she might be with me!"
"Do you mean that girl you were so very proud of corresponding with? Iforget how the whole business began," broke in Stephanie Radford.
"Don't you remember? It was through a magazine we take. The editorarranged for readers of the magazine in England to exchange letters withother readers overseas. He gave me Rona. We've been writing to eachother every month for two years."
"I had an Australian, but she wouldn't write regularly, so we droppedit," volunteered Beth Broadway. "I believe Gertrude had somebody too."
"Yes, a girl in Canada. I never got farther than one short letter and apicture post card, though. I do so loathe writing," sighed Gertrude."Ulyth's the only one who's kept the thing up."
"And do you mean to say this New Zealander's actually coming to ourschool?" asked Stephanie.
"That's the joysome gist of my remarks! I can't tell you how I'm piningand yearning to see her. She seems like a girl out of a story. To thinkof it! Rona Mitchell at school with us!"
"Suppose you don't like her?"
"Oh, I'm certain I shall! She's written me the jolliest, loveliest,funniest letters! I feel I know her already. We shall be the very bestof friends. Her father has a huge farm of I can't tell you how manymiles, and she has two horses of her own, and fords rivers when she'sout riding."
"When's she to arrive?"
"Probably to-morrow. She's travelling by the _King George_, and comingup straight from London to school directly she lands. I hope she's gotto England safely. She must have left home ever such a long time ago.How fearfully exciting for her to----"
But here Ulyth's reflections were brought to an abrupt close, for thetrain was approaching Glanafon Ferry, and her comrades, busilycollecting their various handbags, would lend no further ear to herremarks.
The little wayside station, erstwhile the quietest and sleepiest on theline, was soon overflowing with girls and their belongings. Miss Moseleyflitted up and down the platform, marshalling her charges like afaithful collie, the one porter did his slow best, and after a fewagitated returns to the compartments for forgotten articles, everythingwas successfully collected, and the train went steaming away down thevalley in the direction of Craigwen. It seemed to take the last link ofcivilization with it, and to leave only the pure, unsullied countrybehind. The girls crossed the line and walked through the white stationgate with pleased anticipation writ large on their faces. It was thecult at The Woodlands to idolize nature and the picturesque, and theyhad reached a part of their journey which was a particular source ofpride to the school.
Any admirer of scenery would have been struck with the lovely andromantic view which burst upon the eye as the travellers left theplatform at Glanafon and walked down the short, grassy road that led tothe ferry. To the south stretched the wide pool of the river, blue asthe heaven above where it caught the reflection of the September sky,but dark and mysterious where it mirrored the thick woods that shadedits banks. Near at hand towered the tall, heather-crowned crag of CwmDinas, while the rugged peaks of Penllwyd and Penglaslyn frowned inmajesty of clouds beyond. The ferry itself was one of those delightfulsurvivals of mediævalism which linger here and there in a few fortunatecorners of our isles. A large flat-bottomed boat was slung on chainswhich spanned the river, and could be worked slowly across the water bymeans of a small windlass. Though it was perfectly possible, and ofteneven more convenient, to drive to the school direct from LlangarmonJunction, so great was the popular feeling in favour of arrival by theferry that at the autumn and spring reunions the girls were allowed toavail themselves of the branch railway and approach The Woodlands by wayof the river.
They now hurried on to the boat as if anticipating a pleasure-jaunt. Thecapacities of the flat were designed to accommodate a flock of sheep ora farm wagon and horses, so there was room and to spare even forthirty-seven girls and their hand luggage. Evan Davis, the crusty oldferryman, greeted them with his usual inarticulate grunt, a kind of "Oh,here you are again, are you!" form of welcome which was more forcefulthan gracious. He linked the protecting chains carefully across the endof the boat, called out a remark in Welsh to his son, Griffith, and,seizing the handle, began to work the windlass. Very slowly andleisurely the flat swung out into the river. The tide was at the fulland the wide expanse of water seemed like a lake. The clanking chainsbrought up bunches of seaweed and river grass which fell with an oozythud upon the deck. The mountain air, blowing straight from Penllwyd,was tinged with ozone from the tide. The girls stood looking up thereach of water towards the hills, and tasting the salt on their lipswith supreme gratification. It was not every school that assembled bysuch a romantic means of conveyance as an ancient flat-bottomedferry-boat, and they rejoiced over their privileges.
"I'm glad the tide's full; it makes the crossing so much wider,"murmured Helen Cooper, with an eye of admiration on the woods.
"Don't suppose Evan shares your enthusiasm," laughed Marjorie Earnshaw."He's paid the same, whatever the length of the journey."
"Old Grumps gets half a crown for his job, so he needn't grumble," putin Doris Deane.
"Oh, trust him! He'd look sour at a pound note."
"What makes him so cross?"
"Oh, he's old and lame, I suppose, and has a crotchety temper."
"Here we are at last!"
The boat was grating on the shore. Griffith was unfastening the movableend, and in another moment the girls were springing out gingerly, one byone, on to the decidedly muddy stepping-stones that formed a roughcauseway to the bank. A cart was waiting to convey the handbags
allboxes had been sent as "advance luggage" two days before
, so,disencumbered of their numerous possessions, the girls started to walkthe steep uphill mile that led to The Woodlands.
Miss Bowes and Miss Teddington, the partners who owned the school, hadbeen exceptionally fortunate in their choice of a house. If, as runs themodern theory, beautiful surroundings in our early youth are of theutmost importance in training our perceptions and aiding the growth ofour higher selves, then surely nowhere in the British Isles could a moresuitable setting have been found for a home of education. The longterrace commanded a view of the whole of the Craigwen Valley, an expanseof about sixteen miles. The river, like a silver ribbon, wound throughwoods and marshland till it widened into a broad tidal estuary as itneared the sea. The mountains, which rose tier after tier from the levelgreen meadows, had their lower slopes thickly clothed with pines andlarches; but where they towered above the level of a thousand feet theforest growth gave way to gorse and bracken, and their jagged summits,bare of all vegetation save a few clumps of coarse grass, showed asplintered, weather-worn outline against the sky. Penllwyd, Penglaslyn,and Glyder Garmon, those lofty peaks like three strong Welsh giants,seemed to guard the entrance to the enchanted valley, and to keep it aplace apart, a last fortress of nature, a sanctuary for birds andflowers, a paradise of green shade and leaping waters, and abreathing-space for body and soul.
The house, named "The Woodlands" by Miss Bowes in place of its older butrather unpronounceable name of Llwyngwrydd
the green grove
, took bothits Welsh and English appellations from a beautiful glade, planted withoaks, which formed the southern boundary of the property. Through thispark-like dell flowed a mountain stream, tumbling in little whitecascades between the big boulders that formed its bed, and pouring inquite a waterfall over a ledge of rock into a wide pool. Its steadyrippling murmur never stopped, and could be heard day and night throughthe ever-open windows, gentle and subdued in dry weather, but rising toa roar when rain in the hills brought the flood down in a turbulenttorrent.
Through lessons, play, or dreams this sound of many waters was everpresent; it gave an atmosphere to the school which, if passed unnoticedthrough extreme familiarity, would have been instantly missed if itcould have stopped. To the girls this stream was a kind of guardiandeity, with the glade for its sacred grove. They loved every rock andstone and cataract, almost every patch of brown moss upon its boulders.Each morning of the summer term they bathed before breakfast in the poolwhere a big oak-tree shaded the cataract. It was so close to the housethat they could run out in mackintoshes, and so retired that itresembled a private swimming-bath. Here they enjoyed themselves likewater-nymphs, splashing in the shallows, plunging in the pool, swingingfrom the boughs of the oak-tree, and scrambling over the lichenedboulders. It was a source of deep regret to the hardier spirits thatthey were not allowed to take their morning dip in the stream all theyear round; but on that score mistresses were adamant, and with theclose of September the naiads perforce withdrew from their favouriteelement till it was warmed again by the May sunshine.
The house itself had originally been an ancient Welsh dwelling of thedays of the Tudors, but had been largely added to in later times. Thestraight front, with its rows of windows, classic doorway, andstone-balustraded terrace, was certainly Georgian in type, and thetower, an architectural eyesore, was plainly Victorian. The taste of theearly nineteenth century had not been faultless, and all the best partof the building, from an artistic point of view, lay at the back. Thismainly consisted of kitchens and servants' quarters, but there stillremained a large hall, which was the chief glory of the establishment.It was very lofty, for in common with other specimens of the period ithad no upper story, the roof being timbered like that of a church. Thewalls were panelled with oak to a height of about eight feet, and abovethat were decorated with elaborate designs in plaster relief,representing lions, wild boars, stags, unicorns, and other heraldicdevices from the coat-of-arms of the original owner of the estate. Anarrow winding staircase led to a minstrels' gallery, from which wassuspended a wooden shield emblazoned with the Welsh dragon and thenational motto, "Cymru am byth"
"Wales for ever"
If the hall was the main picturesque asset of the building, it must beadmitted that the unromantic front portion was highly convenient, andhad been most readily adaptable for a school. The large light rooms ofthe ground floor made excellent classrooms, and the upper story was solavishly provided with windows that it had been possible, by means ofwooden partitions, to turn the great bedrooms into rows of smalldormitories, each capable of accommodating two girls.
The bright airy house, the terrace with its glorious view of the valley,the large old-fashioned garden, and, above all, the stream and the glademade a very pleasant setting for the school life of the forty-eightpupils at The Woodlands. The two principals worked together in perfectharmony. Each had her own department. Miss Bowes, who was short, stout,grey-haired, and motherly, looked after the housekeeping, the hygiene,and the business side. She wrote letters to parents, kept the accounts,interviewed tradespeople, superintended the mending, and was the finalreferee in all matters pertaining to health and general conduct. "DearOld Rainbow", as the girls nicknamed her, was frankly popular, for shewas sympathetic and usually disposed to listen, in reason, to thevarious plaints which were brought to the sanctum of her privatesitting-room. Her authority alone could excuse preparation, orderbreakfast in bed, remit practising, dispense jujubes, allow specialfestivities, and grant half-holidays. It was rumoured that she thoughtof retiring and leaving the school to her partner, and such a reportalways drew from parents the opinion that she would be greatly missed.
Miss Teddington, younger by many years, took a more active part in theteaching, and superintended the games and outdoor sports. She was talland athletic, a good mathematician, and interested in archæology andnature study. She led the walks and rambles, taught the Sixth Form, andrepresented the more scholastic and modern element. Her enterpriseinitiated all fresh undertakings, and her enthusiasm carried themforward with success. "Hard-as-nails" the girls sometimes called her,for she coddled nobody and expected the utmost from each one's capacity.If she was rather uncompromising, however, she was just, and a strongvein of humour toned down much of the severity of her remarks. To bechided by a person whose eye is capable of twinkling takes part of thesting from the reprimand, and the general verdict of the school was tothe effect that "Teddie was a keen old watch-dog, but her bark was worsethan her bite."
Of the other mistresses and girls we will say more anon. Havingintroduced my readers to The Woodlands, it is time for the story tobegin.